How Texas A&M Landed Big Grants In Music, Engineering, and Business

On the basketball court over the weekend, the Aggies, down 12 with under a minute to go, impossibly rallied to beat Northern Iowa in overtime. In terms of a deficit overcome, it's the greatest comeback in the history of college basketball. March Madness, indeed.

Texas A&M recently scored big wins on the philanthropic front, too. The school received a $10 million gift from the Ed Rachal Foundation to support the music department with the opening of a new Music Activities Center. Texas A&M also received a $12 million gift from alums Anthony Bahr and Jay Graham to establish the Petroleum Ventures Program (PVP), an interdisciplinary venture between the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering and Mays Business School.

We'll leave it to ESPN to dissect what went so right for the Aggies and so wrong for Northern Iowa in terms of hoops. As for what Texas A&M did right from a fundraising perspective, though, I recently spoke with Texas A&M Foundation President Tyson Voelkel, who unpacked the story. What I found out was less sports miracle and more about common themes we often talk about at IP.


Let's tackle Texas A&M's $10 million music high note first, which will give the school's music department a place to call its own. The new music center will be home to all of the university’s orchestras, choral groups, and bands, including the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, and will accommodate more than 1,300 student musicians. The gift comes from the Corpus Christi-based Ed Rachal Foundation, which has been laser-focused on the Lone Star State since its founding in the 1960s.

The Ed Rachal Foundation has steadily supported Texas A&M, giving more than $20 million to the university through the years. This, by the way, amounts to almost one-third of Ed Rachal's total distributions since it's been around.

President Voelkel calls its relationship with the Rachal Foundation a "textbook of example of what 'right' looks like in the advancement world." Interestingly enough, Voelkel tells me that this relationship began with a 'no.' In the early 1980s, a development officer approached Rachal and was turned down for a project because it didn't meet a charter. The university went back to the drawing board and that same development officer tried again. The answer this time? 'Yes.'

Fast-forward a couple of decades and the Rachal Foundation has funded more than 30 scholarships at Texas A&M, as well as five faculty chairs in four colleges, and plenty more. In 2014, the foundation gave $1 million to establish the JoAnn ’92 and Bob ’58 Walker Singing Cadets Endowment to honor the Texas A&M fundraising executive with whom they collaborated for many years. This speaks to the especially strong relationship that Texas A&M has fostered with the foundation. 

Voelkel also brings up an interesting point about music gifts specifically and their potential to enrich the campus as a whole. Quality campus music programs and centers are useful for bolstering the entire university ecosystem. These efforts are useful in helping recruit top-notch faculty and researchers, for instance. Many students across the disciplines, as well as faculty, also have a strong interest in music, not to mention the general public. All in all, it makes sense that a regionally focused foundation like Rachal, which has been an especially strong Aggie steward, would be interested in supporting music at Texas A&M this time around.

Engineering and Business

Entrepreneur co-founders of Houston-based WildHorse Resources, Anthony Bahr and Jay Graham, also gave $12 million to Texas A&M to create the Petroleum Ventures Program (PVP), a new entrepreneurial training program to better prepare undergraduate and graduate students interested in the oil and gas industry. Bahr and Graham are both Aggies who knew each other at Texas A&M and went on to do business together. Houston is a world energy hub, and many Texas A&M graduates go to the city to work.

Part of this story involves a professor. We've said before that they can strongly influence alumni donors. In this case, Bahr and Graham took classes taught by Billy "Pete" Huddleson, who challenged students to be practitioner-scholars. Huddleson was active in the business world and brought his rich experiences to the classroom. He was even an initial investor in these alums' business. These experiences inspired Bahr and Graham to develop a project that would bring together the college of engineering and the college of business.

Related: An "Inspiration" and Friend: A Prominent Professor Helps Spur An Engineering Gift

The donors are notably young. Bahr graduated from Texas A&M in 1991 and Graham graduated from the university in 1992. When I asked Voelkel about his thoughts on cultivating younger donors, his advice was simply, "Stop ignoring them and engage." Actually, that's only one piece of advice he gave. What else did he say?

  • Be purposeful. Think hard about what motivates these donors. Words like 'charity' and 'gift' may not be relevant to younger donors. A word like 'investment', on the other hand, might be more exciting. In this case, Bahr and Graham were sold on the idea that PVP was an investment in the future.
  •  Be patient. While many donors are turning to philanthropy at younger ages, they're simultaneously juggling business and personal commitments. "Just because they tell you no at first doesn’t mean disinterest. You have to embrace the idea that you’re developing a relationship that will most likely span a decade or more. Try to understand where their passions are and how to best support their needs and wants with those with the institutions."
  • Be passionate and authentic. "You have to be real," Voelkel advises.